Stirling Lecture - The Way We Think About Thinking Matters

Tanya Marie Luhrmann

This year’s Stirling Lecture will be delivered by Professor Tanya Marie Luhrmann from Stanford University with a talk entitled ‘The Way We Think About Thinking Matters’. The lecture will take place on Tuesday 4th December 2018 at 18:00 in Keynes Lecture Theatre 1. The event is free and open to all.

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This talk makes the argument that the way we think about our minds matters and may shape the phenomenology of our mental events. It makes the case that different practices of attending to mental events have identifiable phenomenological consequences and that different cultures and different theologies emphasise mind and mental process in distinctive ways. The data to support this claim comes from research on the way charismatic Christians experience God and the way persons who meet criteria for schizophrenia experience psychosis in the US, Accra and Chennai. These are different populations: but both hear ‘voices’.

We can see that the way people map the territory of the mind works as a kind of practice of attention: with practised attention and cultural invitation, Christians report that some kinds of events come to feel more ‘external’—they develop more confidence that God has spoken and report a more sensory quality to the voice. Meanwhile, those with psychosis report different content to voice-hearing when they do not immediately infer from the experience that they are ‘crazy’ (as Americans do). They speak as if their negative voices are (on average) less caustic. The data suggests that one consequence of the different ways of representing mind and mental experience is that Americans have a harsher experience of psychosis and less a spiritual one.


Tanya Marie Luhrmann is the Watkins University Professor at Stanford University in the Stanford Anthropology Department. Her work focuses on the edge of experience: on voices, visions, the world of the supernatural and the world of psychosis. She has done ethnography on the streets of Chicago with homeless and psychotic women and worked with people who hear voices in Chennai, Accra and the South Bay. She has also done fieldwork with evangelical Christians who seek to hear God speak back, with Zoroastrians who set out to create a more mystical faith, and with people who practise magic. She uses a combination of ethnographic and experimental methods to understand the phenomenology of unusual sensory experiences, the way they are shaped by ideas about minds and persons, and what we can learn from this social shaping that can help us to help those whose voices are distressing.

She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003 and received a John Guggenheim Fellowship award in 2007. Her book God Talks Back was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year. It was also awarded the $100,000 Grawemeyer Prize for Religion by the University of Louisville. She has published over thirty op eds in The New York Times and her work has been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, Science News and many other publications. Her new book, Our Most Troubling Madness: Schizophrenia and Culture, was published by the University of California Press in October 2016.

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